In the past, I’ve written articles like, A Slightly Pissy History of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” And while I love them, no one else seems to. I figure that is because most people don’t want to listen to different versions of the same song five times in a row. But it would make a very compelling series of articles.
Born and Livin’ With The Blues
So let’s do a week of Brownie McGhee. He was a practitioner of Piedmont blues. It is a special form of guitar playing that sounds a lot like ragtime played on a guitar. The best example of the art form is probably Blind Boy Fuller. It was very big in the 1920s. After World War II it fell out of favor. But in the late 1950s, it really came back thanks to the folk revival. They really liked it for what I think are pretty obvious reasons.
I’ll have more to say about McGhee throughout the week. For now let’s just listen to one of his better known songs, “Born and Livin’ With the Blues.” Playing with him is harmonica player Sonny Terry. I’ll have more to say about him too.
I was first introduced to Brownie McGhee in one of my favorite films, Angel Heart. In it, he plays a voodoo worshiping blues musician, Toots Sweet. He gets one of the best lines in the film, “We ain’t all Baptists down here, sonny!” He’s great in the film. It amazed me to find out that he wasn’t some old character actor. But if singing the blues doesn’t make you an actor, I don’t know what does.
In the film, we get to hear him perform the end of one of his songs, “Rainy Day.” It is a beautiful song. It’s even in the script. Harry Angel comes up to him and say, “That’s some beautiful tune you was singing there, Mr Sweet.” I’m sure you will agree:
Red River Blues and Crow Jane
Sonny Terry was blinded early on in life, and without the ability to farm, he turned to music out of desperation. At some point, he hooked up with Blind Boy Fuller. That’s pretty much being at the top of the profession. Fuller was such a great guitar player. But he died in 1941, and so Terry hooked up with Brownie McGhee. The two of them played together pretty consistently for decades until Terry died in 1986. In fact, the two of were in The Jerk together. I didn’t much like that film. But now I’m going to have to track it down, just to see them.
In the following video, we get to see the two of them do two classic blues numbers. The first is a Peg Leg Howell tune, “Red River Blues.” I must admit to finding Howell extremely uneven. And his performance of this song leaves much to be desired. But it’s a great song and McGhee and Terry do well by it. They move from it seamlessly into Skip James’ “Crow Jane.” In the latter song, Sonny Terry does some great hollering (or whatever you want to call it). You can see in this video why these two were popular: they seem like they’re having a great time and it’s infectious. This video is from the DVD Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry: Red River Blues 1948-1974.
Moving on with our week of Brownie McGhee, we have another song with his longtime collaborator Sonny Terry. This one is an Elmore James song, “Stranger Blues.” Of course, it’s always hard to say who wrote what. It is an entirely standard 12-bar blues. What’s more interesting here is that it is clearly done on a television stage. It seems like someone may have had the idea of creating something like an African American Hee Haw. But actually good.
Musically, the song is interesting because of the vocal harmony during the refrain. This is the sort of thing that made people refer to McGhee and Terry as “country blues.” It works really well — gives the music that something extra. Of course, the two of them are so great, they hardly need it. I just love this stuff.
My Baby’s So Fine
Doing these posts with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry are a great pleasure musically. But in terms of research, they are a real pain. I find that I spend a lot of time trying to track down just what songs they are doing. They don’t tend to do standards. Even the classics that they do are not widely known — at least to me. And then, like all great blues musicians, they make the songs their own — including by changing the lyrics.
In the following video, they do a song called, “My Baby’s So Fine.” It seems to come from an album that McGhee did with Earl Hooker (John Lee Hooker’s cousin), I Couldn’t Believe My Eyes. Although Sonny Terry’s name was not on the album, he was playing on the whole thing. And he wrote the song.
This video also includes a medley of “Poor Man” and “Fighting a Losing Battle but Having a Lot of Fun Trying to Win.” The first song I’m not sure about. The second song is written by Brownie McGhee. I suspect that the first one is too; it’s his style. Unfortunately, it gets cut off just a bit. Still, the whole video is worth listening too.
Cornbread and Peas
Here is a song that I assume was written by Sonny Terry, “Cornbread, Peas, and Black Molasses,” off California Blues. I don’t know why. It just seems like a more standard blues — although not entirely. Anyway, it is a fun little song. But if you feel you must have more today, check out their version of Randy Newman’s song Sail Away off their album, Sonny & Brownie. It’s really great! I think Arlo Guthrie is doing background vocals on it.
This video has a brief introduction to the song. I didn’t know that Brownie McGhee had suffered from polio as a child. These two were quite the pair.
A Whole Set of Brownie and Sonny
Let’s end this Brownie McGhee week with a whole set by him and Sonny Terry. Why not? It’s the weekend. You have a half hour. This is from a 1974 BBC concert. It includes just one song that I featured earlier in the week — and how could it not feature that one. It’s interesting to see how they work the audience. Clearly, it is Terry who is the extroverted of the two. And he has a stage presence that is exactly what you would expect from a lifetime of working in front of folk audiences. There’s a good deal of “joke folk” in Sonny Terry.
What’s amazing with these guys is that once they get going, it seems like a whole lot more than just two guys. Part of it is just that McGhee is an amazing guitarist. Another part is that Terry manages to move back and forth from singing and playing without missing a beat — literally! He is also a much more varied harmonica player than I’m used to. And he’s great at playing backup when that’s called for, as with, “Born and Livin’ With the Blues.” Enjoy!